IF you ever see a picture of a tigerfish or, even better, hold one close up and looked into its eyes, you realise instantly it is a fish that means business. Mother Nature often understates her wonderful creations. Imagine you’d never seen a real hippo before. Plump, pink and prone to sunburn, it is often portrayed in a ballerina tutu but this comic and cuddly image could not be further from the truth. Catch one by surprise in a canoe or get between a mother and her calf, and you’ll soon realise why hippos account for the most human lives in the African bush each year. On the other hand, the tigerfish is exactly what you’d imagine it to be – terror on fins.
Hydrocynus vittatus, otherwise known as the striped water dog, the tigerfish has a mouthful of neat, pearly-white, cone-shaped teeth that interlock with the mechanical precision of a well-engineered gin trap, and are certainly not for show. Many predatory fish, such as wahoo and piranha fish have tidy, serrated teeth for slicing and dicing. But tigerfish disembowel their prey. There’s nothing surgical about them. Their modus operandi is to charge into their victim, stunning it in the process, and then turn back to pick up the bewildered fish.
It is for this reason that catching tigerfish has always been a fairly serious endeavour – the combination of lightning speed, the sharp teeth and rock-hard, impenetrable palate make hooking them a challenge to say the least. Tackle has traditionally been stout spinning rods and reels with heavy metal spoons and spinners on the end of a length of metal trace to prevent their being bitten off. Since techniques have evolved with time, it was inevitable that someone would be daft enough to take a knife to a gunfight and try and tame a tiger on a fly-rod. Sporadic literature and a few grainy photos featuring bad haircuts and sideburns are testament to some success in the Seventies and Eighties.
In the early Nineties I ran a lodge in the Okavango Delta and, using my first sloppy Diawa Osprey #6 rod, Leeda Rimfly reel and double-taper sinking-line, I threw some home-tied flies that wouldn’t have been out of place in The Muppet Show. I managed to land some tigers up to 8lb and today they still remain one of my favourite fish to pursue with a fly-rod. In prime time on the Zambezi River or Okavango Delta, one will actually see more “fluff chuckers” than conventional anglers on the water. Not only does a modern baitfish brush fly look far more delectable than a big, shiny, brass spoon but hook-up rates are much better than on hardware.
Tigerfish are notoriously hard to hook. Well-documented stats claim you are doing well to land one in 10 strikes. This isn’t hard to believe when you see a seething-mad tigerfish leap, somersault and head-shake a heavy spoon or spinner. It is a sight to behold and more often than not results in the lure being hurled back at the angler.
Fly-fishing is more exhilarating as you are directly in touch with the fish as it hits. Unencumbered by a heavy-geared reel, you have greater line control as you strip the line over your forefinger, and when that inevitable jump comes, an almost weightless fly is far less likely to dislodge than a heavy, metal lure.
The best time for catching tigerfish on the fly on the Zambezi is undoubtedly the winter months, so from May until September. This may seem strange for the quintessential warm-water predator but it is not the water temperature but height that makes for such favourable conditions. Floodwater from the Angolan highlands moves down the river system like a wave. The river bursts its banks and the water spreads out for miles on to the surrounding plains.
The shallow, warm water, nutrient-enriched by dung from elephant, buffalo and the local tribe’s cattle, makes an ideal nursery environment for resident fish. Depending upon the extent of the floods, the waters subside and the juvenile fish from prolific breeding in the shallows are funnelled back into the main channel. At these inlets, flocks of birds mark the ensuing carnage, where tigerfish mercilessly smash the small baitfish re-entering the system. The water at this time of the year is very clear, making it ideal for the fly-fisherman, who is reliant on the tigers’ keen eyesight and ability to home in on their prey.
My favourite way to fish the Zambezi is by staying on a colonial-style houseboat, not only because it is a civilised way to accommodate oneself, but also because it can move with the floodwaters and therefore the fish concentrations. While there are some magnificent lodges on the Zambezi, if the fish are not nearby, long runs in the boats can be tiresome. The houseboat can stay in the most productive waters and it is never a very long journey, once the lines are up, to your first gin and tonic.
It is a great trip to bring one’s spouse on. The flexibility of the houseboat means that the better half can have a lie-in while you fish the dawn tiger frenzy, then drive downstream for some tame viewing, and meet you later on to throw a line and enjoy the sunset.
Fly-fishing for tigerfish is by no means leisurely. You must be up to greet the morning stars at first light. After a quick cup of coffee, you’ll race upstream in a fast boat, with the icy pre-dawn wind cutting through your clothes.
Once the sun is up, things quickly heat up, and so does the level of challenge. You will be perched on the front of a drifting boat with bare feet so as not to stand on the fly-line when casting out heavy Clousers on a fast sinking-line, then stripping back at a rate of knots, trying to imitate a small fish fleeing the jaws of death. A lot of the time it’s just about covering water, making consistently long casts, experimenting with different sink rates, and mixing up double-handed retrieves with single-handed strips.
There can be long periods of inaction until, just when your attention wanders as you admire an 18ft croc sunbathing on a bank, it happens – a hit so ferocious that it rips the line from your stripping hand. The friction of the line over your forefinger burns so much that you whimper. Now you are focused, whipped back to reality in an instant. You feverishly recast in the same direction and your first strip is met with a solid stop and the sensation of an electric shock passing down the fly-line.
The worst thing you can possibly do is rod-strike, as the rod will do exactly what it’s designed to: on being lifted, it will flex and bend, acting as a shock absorber, softening the hook set and guaranteeing a lost fish. Instead, keep the rod horizontal and strip-strike into the take, setting the hook in the tigerfish‘s tough jaws.
All hell breaks loose. The rate at which line is stripped away by a sizeable, running fish weakens your knees. Bonefish run but tigerfish streak away with such ferocity that if you tangle the line round your toes you will be an instant amputee. As quickly as it heads off, it will turn and dash back at you, so that you have to strip line for all you’re worth, lift the rod and even yell at the skipper to reverse.
Before you know it, the tigerfish is under the boat and out the other side, your line darting in a new direction and the tiger jumping and somersaulting in a different place. If the blistering runs, thudding head shakes and explosive jumps begin to subside and, miraculously, you are still attached to your prize, there is half a chance you may slip the net under her. You quickly weigh in, hoping for a double-figure fish, and then, using heavy-duty pliers (or you’ll never play the piano again), you remove the hook, take a photo, and release the fish.
You slump on the bow of your boat as the adrenalin leaves your veins – sunburnt, with aching shoulder-blades from casting a heavy rod and cramped knuckles from stripping a fly-line all day. Your skipper hands you Africa’s soothing tonic for the soul – the cold, amber nectar from the timeless, brown beer bottle. Hippo grunts and fish eagle cries salute the passing day in a sunset cacophony and you ask yourself, “Could I put myself through this again tomorrow? Maybe, just maybe…”
A seven-night fishing trip with Mavungana Flyfishing costs R26,900 per person plus flights.